Abraham Accords See Horizons Broaden In Middle East

The first-ever commercial flight from Israel to the UAE landed in Abu Dhabi on Aug. 31, 2020.
Credit: Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty Images

Possibly the most startling diplomatic coup by the Trump administration was the signing of the Abraham Accords, normalizing relations between Israel on the one hand and the UAE and Bahrain on the other. Sudan and Morocco followed.

Air services between the nations came quickly after. Etihad and flydubai are operating from Abu Dhabi and Dubai respectively to Tel Aviv, with El Al serving Dubai, Marrakesh and Casablanca. 

Etihad and El Al also swiftly signed an MoU that included provisions for joint codeshare services, reciprocal frequent flyer benefits and cooperation in engineering and cargo services in both Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv. 

This summer, those provisions were firmed up; in particular, Etihad’s engineering arm signed a partnership with Israel Aerospace Industries for passenger-to-freighter (P2F) conversions of Boeing 777-300ERs.

This builds on the 2019 agreement between IAI and GECAS to launch the Boeing 777-300ERSF P2F conversion. IAI and Etihad Engineering will jointly undertake the conversion. Initially, Etihad Engineering will facilitate two conversion lines accommodating multiple aircraft conversions per year.  

The first flush of enthusiasm for the accords saw Israelis, Emiratis and Bahrainis—notably, the younger generation—taking to social media to excitedly exchange hopes to visit the others’ countries. There is no doubt that, on both sides, many were intrigued by the prospect of visiting nations that had been barred to them throughout their lives.

However, given that the Abraham Accords were signed in August 2020 amid the pandemic, following up on that curiosity has proven difficult for would-be passengers. 

“It’s a difficult situation to assess properly because of coronavirus,” says Stanley Morais, El Al’s deputy director of international affairs. For periods since March 2020, Israel has been effectively closed to most foreign travelers unless they have special authorization to enter the country. For that reason, flights between Israel and the Arab nations that signed the accords have consisted largely of outbound Israeli passengers only.

“Things are getting a little bit better,” Morais says. One factor that will help, once health restrictions are eased, is the introduction in October of a visa waiver regime between Israel and the UAE. 

Initial indications were that the routes would be well-trafficked. When the first services between Israel and Dubai were opened, some 50,000 people used them in the first couple of months. To what extent that was due to the “novelty factor” is uncertain, but El Al is hopeful of good traffic on the route as the health situation improves. 

The Israeli flag-carrier has also opened routes to Marrakech and Casablanca in Morocco. Load factors “could be better,” Morais concedes, but he points out that, again, traffic is currently very largely one-way. 

Once the constraints caused by the pandemic loosen further, “We expect these routes to be very, very good for us.” Israir is also operating to Marrakesh.

El Al has, at present, no plans to fly to Bahrain, the other nation to sign up to the accords. Bahraini flag-carrier Gulf Air inaugurated flights to Tel Aviv on Sept. 30 using an Airbus A320neo for the twice-weekly service and Israir is already flying the route between Manama and Tel Aviv. El Al does not believe there is room for a third contender—although that situation may change in the future as the market develops.

According to The Jerusalem Post, it is expected that many Israelis will use Bahrain as a transit point for other, more distant destinations, such as the Philippines, the Maldives and Sri Lanka—all served by Gulf Air.

UK-based analyst Saj Ahmed, chief analyst at StrategicAero Research, who follows the Middle East closely, believes that once the pandemic restrictions are eased, Arab airlines may dominate on the routes to Israel. Their modern fleets are likely to be an attraction and “I don’t see any hesitation from Israeli passport holders from flying on Arab carriers.”

He believes that Qatar may be the next state to normalize relations: “I really see them moving quite quickly—in the next six months, if not sooner. They’ll take a look at the market and think: ‘We’d like a piece of this, too.’”

The major player whose intentions remain unclear is Saudi Arabia. 

An easing of formal relations is not regarded as imminent, “but I’ve heard that a lot of countries, including Saudi Arabia, are having conversations and there are delegations going back and forth,” says Robert Mogielnicki, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “They seem to be preparing for the day when that will happen.”

However, he adds that might have to wait until after a smooth accession of the current crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, to the throne. Mogielnicki agrees with Ahmad that Qatar is likely to be next in line to create links with Israel. 

Kuwait’s longstanding connections with Palestinian negotiations might hold it back from forging links, but Oman, which has a reputation for acting as an honest broker in disputes in the region, would be able to do so with little political risk, Mogielnicki suggests.

Alan Dron

Based in London, Alan is Europe & Middle East correspondent at Air Transport World.